(This appears in the Wednesday April 16 and Thursday April 17 editions of Business Mirror.)
The UEFA Champions League is in its semi-final stage and the big clubs are still in the thick of things. At first glance, there are three English teams left and at least one will make it to the finals in Moscow this coming May.
Three of them are in the hunt for a domestic title. Three of them have seen their season’s marred by front office and player discontent. And three of them have been previously crowned as European champions.
And that’s not even the interesting part.
Chelsea vs. Liverpool
This will be the third meeting between the two teams in the last four years. And every one of them have been in the Champions League semis. Liverpool will be going for the hat trick while Chelsea for all their recent domestic success, will once more try their luck for European glory and salvage what has become a nightmarish season.
Chelsea won six pieces of silverware during Jose Mourinho’s three-year tenure as team gaffer. However, all that is a thing of the past when team owner Roman Abramovich fired the Portuguese coach early in the season following a heated row over a poor start and a lack of flair for the beautiful game at Stamford Bridge. Surely, current England boss Fabio Capello can sympathize with “the Special One.”
Avram Grant was appointed in his place and while the Blues stayed with striking distance of the FA Cup, English Premiere League, and Carling Cup at some point in time during the season, injuries and infighting have brought the team on the verge of anarchy. This Champions League semis with Liverpool win or lose could be the last time we’re seeing this side in its current incarnation as some key players have signified their intention of moving out of West London.
Mourinho’s sacking was said to be the unshackling of the miscast Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack, prized acquisitions from last year who both saw more time on the bench than at any other time of their career. Ballack has been resuscitated but the same can’t be said of the Ukrainian Shevchenko who has chafed at a reserve role and has only scored eight goals since his arrival more than a year ago. In sharp contrast, Sheva scored a Serie A record by tallying 24 markers in his maiden season with the Rossoneri. But hope is on the horizon for this goal machine as Milan is once more in talks with Chelsea about reacquiring Sheva to form a frightening 1-2 punch with Ronaldinho (who they also snagged on principle) for next year.
Chelsea has not cornered the market share on boardroom turmoil. They’ll be up against Liverpool that has troubles of its own aside from the usual player disenchantment. Uncannily, the reds have played well as of late despite the distractions of the warring owners. But even with the wins, England striker Peter Crouch who has lost playing time to the acquisition of Dirk Kuyt has signified his intentions of leaving. Australian midfielder Harry Kewell has lost favor with Rafa Benitez and though he’d love to stay at Anfield, his days in the Carlsberg red kits are almost over.
For all their domestic failures since the inception of the English Premiere League, Liverpool seems to come alive during European competition. To say that they’re built for Euro competition is a blot on Rafael Benitez’ reputation as a tactical genius. Why can’t he get his side to play as consistently in the Premiership?
Last year the Reds beat the Blues 4-1 on penalty kicks after drawing 1-1 n aggregate. In 2005, Liverpool beat Chelsea 1-0 to make it back to the pinnacle of European club competition where they felled AC Milan in one of the most incredible sports comebacks of all time.
If the intense matches between the two in recent history are any indication, this year’s clashes on April 22 and 29 will be a call to arms. But squabbles aside, this will be a different Chelsea side that Liverpool will be facing. Thus far this year, they’ve faced off thrice for two draws in the Premiership and a 2-0 spanking by the Blues in the Carling Cup. The three-pronged attack of Avram Grant has created more scoring opportunities for the Blues when they’re on but with everyone off the scoring pace (particularly Drogba who has only scored eight goals this year as opposed to his 33 of last season) they’ll have their hands full against a Liverpool side that is armed to the teeth.
Liverpool, which has been playing well of late, is also healthy. The 3-1 win versus Blackburn solidified their fourth place position in the Premiership and in next year’s Champions League competition. Another European title will greatly salvage what has been a rollercoaster ride of a year. When they face Chelsea they’ll have their full complement of players including the recently suspended Javier Mescherano.
No penalty kicks here. Liverpool thanks to their corps of scorers in Fernando Torres, Kuyt, Andriy Voronin, Ryan Babel, and the inspired play of their captain Steven Gerrard will move on to their third finals in four years.
Manchester United vs. Barcelona
The Red Devils of Alex Ferguson are almost a cinch to win the Premiership and are one game away from a finals berth in Moscow that would give them a chance for a treble of sorts (they did win the Community Shield in a match versus Chelsea at the start of this campaign). Early this year, they faced some stiff competition from intra rivals Manchester City that greatly reloaded with the arrival of owner and former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and former England boss Sven Goran Eriksson. But the Citizens after pacing the league in its early stages, faltered and surrendered the lead to rivals Manchester United and Arsenal. And Arsenal beset by erratic play and injuries to key players soon found itself struggling to keep up with the Red Devils.
Dipping into the rich free agent transfer market, Fergie’s purchases of Nani, Carlos Tevez, and Anderson have given Man U more attacking flexibility. And Owen Hargreaves’ midfield savvy (he did score the winner that forced Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger to concede this year’s title to Man United) will make it easier for Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo to find the back of the net.
Manchester United’s strong defensive backline and their renewed attacking spirit make them a strong favorite to move past Barcelona which has been an implosion in the making for the last two years.
On the other hand, the Catalan club’s fortunes eerily mimic those of Chelsea’s. For two years they ruled the Spanish La Liga. Then last season, they surrendered the title in the final game of the season to age-old rivals Real Madrid. Had they won last year would this team be experiencing its current troubles now?
For the answer, one will have to rely on that sports truism where winning hides the bad but the losing brings to a head the warts and all. And at Barca, sometimes they’re off-field troubles are tabloid page fodder.
In his early years at the Catalan team, manager Frank Rijkaard took over a dysfunctional club and with a modest budget and turned them into winners in the domestic league and in Europe. He took a chance to on Ronaldinho who clashed once too often with Luis Fernandez, the manager of his previous club Paris Saint-Germain. Rijkaard’s victories gave him the clout and rein to build a galactico project that didn’t seem to work with their Madrid rivals. And in many ways, it’s not working for his side.
Over time, he brought in Lionel Messi, Sam Eto’o, and Juventus refugees Lillian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta, and Bojan Krkic. In fact, the squad played better without Ronaldinho as the Argentine Messi looked better to take over the scoring mantle from the disgraced Brazilian.
With Real Madrid looking good to defend their crown, Barcelona’s last hopes lie in a Champions League title they last won several years ago against Arsenal which then featured their current striker Thierry Henry.
Barcelona is coming in having drawn most of their last few matches in the La Liga. If they keep their head in the game and play with a renewed sense of purpose they just might possibly even turn the tables on Madrid in Spain and land a berth in the Champions League Finals.
Manchester United by a hairline where they’ll face the pre-Premiership face of English football, Liverpool.